In 2020, the Republican Party has a bad reputation on race, not entirely undeserved, and the thing to understand about the upcoming elections is this: As a matter of pure cynical political calculation, the Republican Party’s problem isn’t that its bad reputation on race costs it the support among black voters but that its bad reputation on race costs it support among white voters.
And that is why Kamala Harris is going to matter come November.
Senator Harris is not on the ticket to shore up Joe Biden’s support among African Americans. Biden’s black support doesn’t obviously need shoring up, and it isn’t certain that Senator Harris would help him very much if he did. Black voters do not simply vote for the black candidate when a black candidate is put in front of them, and black voters could have voted for Senator Harris or another black candidate in the Democratic primary if they had wanted to — but they considered and delivered the nomination to Joe Biden.
We have a number of exotic theories about African-American voting habits (Republicans cling to their ghastly stupid “plantation” talk), but the most likely explanation remains the most obvious one; i.e., that African Americans vote according to their perceived self-interest like any other group of voters, and that Republicans who are mystified by the fact that black voters still go D in spite of a generation of GOP talk about school choice and empowerment zones do not understand how black voters actually reckon their own interests, possibly because they don’t ask.
Black voters (like women and some immigrant groups) for the most part do not share Republicans’ traditional confidence in free enterprise as a force for social good, their (vanishing) preference for market-based solutions, or their (considerably diminished) hostility toward reflexive statism. And, even if they did, there would still be the fact that while the Republican Party itself is not exactly corporately racist in any meaningful sense of that word — that it is in its official positions and public statements quite the opposite of that — it is today nonetheless the partisan home of old-fashioned white racism and our newfangled white-grievance politics.
Nobody wants to join a party that is understood to be the party for people who don’t like people like them.
Not anymore, anyway. Historically, black voters have been quite capable of seeing past explicitly racial politics when they believe that they have an interest at stake. It is worth keeping in mind that the migration of black voters to the Democratic Party in both presidential and congressional races was complete by the 1940s: The last Republican presidential nominee to win the black vote was Herbert Hoover, and the last Republican congressional slate to win the majority of black votes made its case in 1946. Franklin Roosevelt was pretty weak on civil rights, and Democrats of his era were still blocking anti-lynching bills with his assistance, but the New Deal was very popular with African Americans. The majority of black voters have supported Democrats ever since.
Black voters do not naturally want to join a party with a bad reputation on race. But the more numerically significant fact is this: Neither do white voters. And that matters. One example: As Ronald Brownstein noted in The Atlantic, President Trump’s heaping scorn on Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez et al. didn’t hurt him only in nonwhite urban constituencies: “In both parties, most strategists I’ve spoken with agree that Trump’s bellicose attacks on the congresswomen will harden the opposition he faces among the groups most accepting of America’s changing identity: young people, minorities, and college-educated white voters, especially women.”
The Republican Party’s obliteration in the cities and its diminished standing in the suburbs is the expression of its partial alienation of young people and college-educated whites, women in particular. Republicans can win elections all day without the support of black voters — but without the support of well-off white suburbanites, they are more or less hosed. There just aren’t enough Oklahoma hog farmers to get it done. And at least some of those alienated white people are uncomfortable in the GOP because of Republicans’ reputation on race.
Of course, the Democrats and their media allies are eager to see spectral evidence of racism everywhere, for obvious reasons. Is it reasonable to detect a racial dynamic when a white Republican president criticizes a nonwhite Democratic member of Congress? It depends: Did he also argue that a federal judge should be disqualified from a case because “he is a Mexican”? (The judge in question was born in Indiana.) Paul Ryan, who endorsed Donald Trump, was right to call that a “textbook definition” of racism. The bigoted comments about the parents of the late Army captain Humayun Khan, the housing-discrimination settlement from his New York real-estate business, the crazy birther stuff? “The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!” Enough small impressions eventually make a big mark.
A little bit of racism has a whole lot of stink on it — enough to rub off on everybody around you, fairly or unfairly. The GOP has some stink on it, and Senator Harris’s purpose on the 2020 ticket is not to convince more black voters to support Democrats but to convince more white voters that they should not support Republicans.
And how will Republicans answer the questions Senator Harris will raise among young people, women, and educated suburbanites? If the answer is, “Add ten feet to the Wall and listen to Q!” then it is going to be a very, very cold January for the Party of Lincoln, so-called.